In America, you’re supposed to pursue a specific kind of dream. It’s not a particularly high-minded dream, and it’s not a dream that promises creative feats or ideological change; it certainly isn’t a socialist dream.
It’s a dream that starts off with you “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” after arriving in the country with nothing but the spotted handkerchief you wrapped your change of clothes in, and ends with you buying a big house in the suburbs and owning an American Express Centurion Card (invitation-only if you spend more than $250,000 a year on your usual credit card; comes with a 24-hour concierge service, complimentary flight upgrades when you travel and the ability to shut down a luxury retail store so you can shop in privacy.)
We all know that the American Dream is individualistic. So it’s rare to meet a highly accomplished American figure like Joe Biden, who describes his own career success in a completely different way. “I just hope that the asterisk in history that is attached to my name when they talk about this presidency [says] that I was part of the journey of a remarkable man,” he said tearfully this week, after being presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.
Being proud merely to have backed someone up, to have been an important cog in the machinery of a positive movement, to have your name feature with an explanatory asterisk beside it in the history books rather than your face emblazoned on the book’s cover, is refreshingly un-American. It’s not often that old white men in government feel like game-changers, but Joe Biden managed it.
We now face the inevitability of two very different old white men in the White House. Trump’s American Dream is steadfastly traditional, one steeped in materialism and informed by the idea that it’s “smart” to not pay all your taxes. “Making America great again” is a distinctly commercial enterprise; you only need to take one look at Trump’s recent tweet to one of his reported financial backers – “Thank you to Linda Bean of LL Bean for your great support and courage. People will support you even more now. Buy LL Bean” – to realise that.
The man who will replace Joe Biden, soon-to-be Vice President Mike Pence, is a very different beast to his predecessor. The man who describes himself as “a Christian, and a conservative, and a Republican, in that order” has long supported de-funding Planned Parenthood and famously said that he “long[s] for the day that Roe v Wade is sent to the ash heap of history.” He signed state legislation into law in Indiana which forced women to have ultrasounds and listen to a foetal heartbeat, then leave for 18 hours, before they could go ahead with an abortion, and forced them to either have the foetal remains buried or cremated afterwards.
Joe Biden and Barack Obama through the years
Joe Biden and Barack Obama through the years
Joe Biden and Dr Jill Biden watch Barack Obama's farewell speech on 11 January. Obama called Biden his 'brother'
US President Barack Obama speaks alongside US Vice President Joe Biden about the Affordable Care Act
Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama
President Obama listens to Joe Biden speak of his work on defeating cancer on 18 October in the White House
U.S. President Barack Obama is applauded by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden while delivering his final State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden interjects as President Barack Obama delivers remarks at a reception for the 25th anniversary of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics at the White House in Washington
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden react after a heckler was removed for their extended interruption (Reuters)
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) as Vice President Joe Biden looks on
Barack and Michelle Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden observing a moment of silence outside the White House to mark the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks
Barack Obama and Joe Biden putt on the White House putting green
President Barack Obama and Joe Biden in April 2013
January 1, 2013: U.S. President Barack Obama winks as he arrives with Vice President Joe Biden (L) in the briefing room
President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and others receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House May 1, 2011 in Washington, DC
Vice-President Joe Biden, right, confirmed that the US was looking at ways of taking legal action against Julian Assange - back in December 2010
Joe Biden, left, and retired military officers watch President Barack Obama sign orders to close down the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in January 2009
He voted against the Medicare bill, remains a sceptic on climate change, and he pushed state laws that would allow businesses to refuse to serve gay people of their “religious beliefs”. He’s also been accused of making bad or rushed decisions on education in his own state because “he’s had his eye on the White House, not Indiana”. And I’m just going to leave here the fact that he thinks Disney’s Mulan is “liberal propaganda” which encourages women to join the army (“Moral of story: women in military, bad idea,” he once wrote while discussing the cartoon.)
It’s unclear whether Mike Pence thinks Donald Trump is any good, or if he’s just self-interested enough to sell his soul for a foot in the White House door. During the presidential campaign, Pence consistently contradicted Trump. He also publicly accepted intelligence findings that Russia had hacked Democrat servers and said that they should face “severe consequences” while Trump was still dismissing the allegations as “fake”, “phoney” and “propaganda”. It doesn’t look presidential to react that way to the CIA, and Pence knows it – which is why he’s seemingly distanced himself from his egomaniacal, Twitter-happy running mate.
In fact, five of Trump’s Cabinet nominees openly distanced themselves from the President-elect’s views this week. “We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding,” Trump said in 2016, but none of his nominees said they would obey commands to reinstate torture as an interrogation method. Most notably, Rex Tillerson, Trump’s planned secretary of state, said that he didn’t oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership (Trump said he would pull the US out of the deal on his first day in office) and James “Mad Dog” Mattis, his planned secretary of defence, called NATO “the most successful military alliance, probably, in modern world history, maybe ever”, in diametric opposition to his soon-to-be Commander-in-Chief who suggested last year that he might not defend NATO allies if they were attacked by Russia.
In other words, Trump’s Cabinet have revealed themselves to be blind careerists. They know as well as the rest of the world that this freakish American experiment probably won’t last, and they’re choosing their words carefully so that they remain viable governmental candidates when it all falls apart.
America was lucky to have a vice president in Joe Biden who was not bitter to play second fiddle but instead openly embraced it, and who thought in terms of national gain rather than personal interests.
But that was back when the presidential candidate gave people cause for optimism and the movement behind it wasn’t fired by division or hate. That was back when the relationship between president and VP didn’t require a lot of eye-rolling behind each other’s backs.
Joe Biden had something to get teary about when his friend and colleague presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Thursday. But all Mike Pence can do is stand uncomfortably beside Donald Trump with that trademark tightlipped smile on his face, watching and waiting until it all goes wrong, and hoping that what’s bad for America can at least end up as good for his career.
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